Basic income bows to the master

The debate over whether universal basic income (UBI) should be a central project of the Left is intensifying. Regarded as a transitional demand, advocates suggest that UBI is the solution to the crisis of waged labour as well as a good, realistic utopia. Opponents disagree, myself included. I laid out the reasons why we should regard UBI as a bad utopia in an article for Development and Change. Here I will limit myself to pointing out – once again – the elephant in the room: the problem with money. We know that the imperative of money for human survival creates all sorts of problems and misery in this world. My question is simple: will the ‘universal’ distribution of money solve or reinforce these problems?

The celebration of UBI as the utopia for the Left in the present circumstances is most concerning. The question about what money is has disappeared from the horizon of the Left and it is now only discussed in small Marxist circles. That’s not good. The lack of debate about money prevents those who defend citizens’ right to an income from understanding what money really is. The real problem that we confront is neither the lack of money nor a good way to distribute it, of which UBI is an example. The problem is the human dependence on money for existence.

Polishing the gilded cage

Money is not just the means of exchange. It embodies the capitalist social relations of dispossession, exploitation and subordination. Marx criticised political economists like Adam Smith for believing that money was merely an instrument of administration with no economic importance. He revealed that in capitalist societies money is not an innocent mediation of market exchange. It is the concrete expression of value, the substance of which is abstract labour. Value is materially and visibly expressed in money form.

As the most abstract form of capitalist property, money is both the means of exchange among ‘equal’ citizens and the proof of the expropriation of labour. Money is not an economic phenomenon but a form of political domination. Its existence requires us to need it to survive. Given that, it is bewildering that a massive redistribution of money is the best utopia progressive forces can come up with. UBI conforms to the command of money over humans, and if it comes to pass it will be administered by the capitalist state. That is no utopia.

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The idea that UBI will fulfil a human right is preposterous. On the contrary, UBI will dilute – and thereby help hide – our daily contradiction of being both a part of the exploited proletariat and a pseudo free citizen in the political realm. This separation is more conceptual than empirical, and distinguishing the two is key to the continuation of capitalism. UBI does not challenge the conditions maintaining this separation. Instead, it reinforces the myth of the ‘free citizen’ and its ‘human right to money’.

The argument that, as a transitional demand, UBI will bring freedom from capitalist work demonstrates that UBI proponents misunderstand the nature of capitalist work in a capitalist society. Even if we escape work via UBI, we will still live under the same conditions and social relations that characterise capitalist society: value, commodities, and money. UBI will keep us going, perhaps. And I do recognise the difference in the quality of life of those who have well-paid jobs, those who have badly paid jobs and work in miserable conditions, and those who do not have a job at all. But let us not fool ourselves. For a critic of capital, there is not such a thing as a ‘good’ job. As Mike Neary and I argued in The Labour Debate, to be without a job and to be in work in the contemporary world are both forms of living death.

UBI bows to the master. It will contribute to the perpetuation and subordination of humans to money, which, as Marx once told us, “transforms all human and natural qualities into their opposites … the divine power of money lies in its nature as the strange and alienating species-essence of man which alienates itself by selling itself. It is the alienated capacity of mankind.”

The social power of money, which compels us to work, will continue distorting and eroding what is left of our humanity. Money is the material expression of capitalist property. The most important feature of capitalism, meanwhile, is the subordination of the social reproduction of life to money. Given both, how could UBI make us free, and free of what exactly?

UBI will not bring dignity

There is another argument that must be also reconsidered by UBI proponents: that UBI will bring dignity insofar as it will guarantee material existence. For a critic of capital, UBI cannot bring dignity. Material existence is not synonymous with dignity. Slaves had their material existence assured by the master who possessed them. Did they live with dignity? Rich business speculators have their material existence safeguarded, but do they have dignity?

We should look elsewhere for inspiration. The Zapatistas’ notion of dignity is exemplary. Dignity is synonymous with self-determination; it is subversive and revolutionary. It has nothing to do with possessing anything, let alone receiving money from a centre of power and violence that is crucial to the reproduction of class relations. Dignity comes from dignified rage. Those with dignity do not bow to the master. They spit at its face.

What then? There are many artistic, social, political, cultural, and economic projects that aim at creating alternatives to the world of money. Perhaps, instead of UBI, we should start planning how to support, expand, and multiply these experiments of the future in the present.

Capitalism cannot give us freedom or dignity. We must take them. Fortunately, those engaged in the ‘art of organising hope’ are opening fronts of political possibility. They follow a simple and powerful principle suggested by Audre Lourde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.

This debate was financially supported by a grant from Humanity United.

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